The 2022 election cycle begins in Texas in just a few short weeks. Its likely to be a painful reckoning for Democrats come November, as the party attempts to retool and chart some path forward after whats been a disastrous legislative session. One of the bellwethers for how they will respond comes in Texass 28th District, where 28-year-old progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros is once again challenging nine-term incumbent Henry Cuellar.
Few members of the House did more to ensure the demise of the Biden agenda than Cuellar, who teamed up with the Chamber of Commerce and fellow ConservaDems to loudly oppose the Build Back Better Act as a member of the unbreakable nine. The unbreakable nine proved breakable, as Cuellar eventually voted to pass BBB, but not before proliferating the talking points that Senate Dems would use to kill it in its entirety. Summing up his own year in Congress, the best Cuellar can plausibly say for himself is that he tried to oppose his own party and the presidents agenda, but they succeeded in overcoming him.
Though Cuellar hasnt distinguished himself in terms of legislative accomplishment, he has managed to get his name in the headlines thanks to a fast-unfolding ethics scandal. Last week, Cuellars rather comfortable-looking house was raided by FBI agents as part of the Department of Justices Public Integrity Section investigation into Azerbaijani business interests and American politicians. Amazingly, the raid occurred the same day that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced his endorsement for Cuellars re-election. An email to Rep. Hoyers office asking whether his endorsement of Cuellar had changed or been reconsidered after the FBI raid went unreturned.
Cuellar has defiantly asserted that no FBI investigation will take him out of the race, making the announcement in front of his parents old house in Laredo, not the McMansion that was teeming with agents days before. Top-ranking Democrats remain quiet on the issue.
One question this fast-approaching primary will answer is how far Democrats, in their abiding respect for incumbency, will go to protect their own saboteurs. Hoyer has already begun to provide that answer, and it doesnt bode well for the urgent need for a Democratic course correction.
Cisneros challenged Cuellar in 2020 and lost by four points, a surprisingly tight outcome given the incumbents long tenure and his sizable fundraising advantage. In fact, its possible that Cuellar would have lost outright if not for a drastic, last-second personal intervention from Nancy Pelosi, who came to South Texas in the races final days to raise money on his behalf. Cuellar, of course, repaid the favor by making a mess of BBB, which will almost certainly end up as the last shot Pelosi had to pass major legislation in her political lifetime. It was a stunning jab in the eyeball to someone who does not have a short memory. (Pelosi has not yet endorsed in the race.)
Few members of the House did more to ensure the demise of the Biden agenda than Rep. Cuellar.
With the popular policies that Democrats could have run on, like child care and free community college, now all but out the window, and Biden nursing a profound personal unpopularity, theres little left for Dems to message with. The wages, workers, and weed platform championed at the end of 2020 and early 2021 is moot on all counts. So Democrats are back to running on how awful Republicans are.
The most successful version of this approach will involve a particular insistence on being pro-choice and anti-corruption. With the Republican Supreme Court teed up to end Roe v. Wade in this session, Democrats pro-choice bona fides are certain to be played up to the extreme. Of course, Cuellar is as avowedly anti-choice as any legislator youll find wearing blue in Washington.
As far as corruption goes, Cuellars Azerbaijan problems, catalogued by The Intercept, look pretty damning. But thats not his only ethics scandal. The Intercept also revealed last week that Cuellar aide Colin Strother likely broke the law by working with a dark-money group called the Voter Education Fund to help boost the congressman in his primary. The group has close ties to abortion-ban advocates.
Meanwhile, Cuellar has a decorated history of ethics violations dating back to his early days in Congress. In 2007, the FEC fined Cuellar for repeated disclosure violations in his 2004 campaign, the one that landed him in office in the first place.
Lets stipulate that theres a legislative renaissance that might make those biographical points less substantial; Cuellar still probably wouldnt have a record to run on. While there are a series of modest legislative proposals Democrats might take up soon, the only populist legislation with a pulse in Congress and a Democratic name attached to it is a proposal to ban congressional stock trading, a very popular, commonsense anti-corruption move that Democrats would be wise to seize onthere are plenty of Republicans looking to take credit for it should it stall. Twenty-four Democrats recently sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to support the proposal. Cuellar was not on that list, and hes highly unlikely to co-sponsor the stock trading ban, even though hes not one of Congresss more flagrant traders.
And if Democrats find a way forward on BBB, theyre likely to opt for a final plan that has stand-alone climate provisions. Cuellar would also be a likely opponent to that, as one of the oil industrys favorite legislators.
Whatever Dems ultimately resolve to run on, theres no foreseeable situation in which Cuellar would be running on anything but direct opposition to it. And its hard to run on general Republican badness if you, like Cuellar, voted with Trump 75 percent of the time.
Cisneros, for her part, came within a whisker of beating Cuellar the first time around, falling by just 2,700 votes. As progressive challengers from Cori Bush to Marie Newman showed in 2020, it can often take two cycles to build enough name recognition to oust a long-nested incumbent. That Cuellar is now embroiled in a massive ethics scandal should give a boost that neither of those candidates enjoyed in their second go-around.
The young challenger is running again on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, those topline progressive commitments that now seem much farther away than they did two years ago. But, as in 2020, it is unlikely that Democrats who lose to Republicans come November will have been supporters of either of those things, which means growing the membership in those relevant progressive caucuses will also expand their influence in the party even more.
In the meantime, Cisneros can run on the simple anti-corruption, pro-choice platform that Democrats are sure to home in on down the stretch, and have been fundraising on forever.
In any case, South Texas will be an area of heightened concern for Democrats this year, as the party hopes Bidens 2020 collapse in support among Hispanic voters in the deep-blue border region proves to be an aberration. There are few areas in the country where Democrats need to get their act together faster. Henry Cuellar is uniquely poorly positioned to lead that shift.